The Possible Dream

If we're lucky, there is a day or two in our lives when what unfolds is beyond our expectations.

For some, it's the day they wed. For others, it's when a much-wanted child first shows its head.

For athletes, that moment often comes wrapped in a performance they've dreamed about since they took their first steps. An Olympic gold medal. A Super Bowl ring. A record seventh Tour de France.

Once in awhile an athlete will surprise you, as former Detroit Tigers baseball player Champ Summers did when he said the sweetest day of his life wasn't when he got his first home run, but the day he was airlifted out of Vietnam. Summers, who went on to a solid if unspectacular career in the majors, considered himself lucky to make a living playing baseball. But, he noted, had he not made it back from the jungles of Southeast Asia, he would never have had his chance.

Last week at vaunted Indianapolis Motor Speedway, another many-layered man named Tony Stewart raced his way into the record books – and the hearts of millions -- as the only driver to have tried to take the checkered flag five times in the Indy 500 and six times in NASCAR events. He had started from the pole there and led a chunk of laps, but hadn't been able to close the deal he wanted more than any other in a life that by any measure has been a success.

How much did Stewart want a victory at the Brickyard? Enough, he said, that he would trade it for his 2002 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup championship, a statement of blasphemy to many.

Some drivers talk about the big one, as Stewart has done this season since his four-victory streak began in June at Sonoma, Calif. With others, it's the race they don't talk about that winds their heart the tightest.

Perhaps it was time and certainly it was place, but not since the late Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500 after two decades of heartache has a victory been as wildly popular as Stewart's at the Brickyard.

For those who haven't been there, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a humongous and noisy place. Those who have won there have often said they could barely hear the shouts over their radios, let alone the cheers of the fans.

By the time Stewart had taken a bow in front of his Turn 2 suite and made his way back to the start/finish line, there was no doubt who was the new darling of the 250,000 in attendance. "Tow-nee, Tow-nee, Tow-nee" they screamed, and although Stewart gave up halfway in his attempt to climb the flagstand, those cheers metaphorically lifted him to heaven.

When he flopped down on the frontstretch wall to do his obligatory winner's interview with a hustling Alan Bestwick, Stewart had stolen the hearts of rival drivers' most die-hard fans.

Why? From this corner of the grandstand it was a moment that totally transfixed, one that was authentic and real. Who other than the iconoclastic Stewart would hold his celebration miles from the site of the carefully choreographed hat-dance trance that occurs weekly in victory circle?

As was Summers, Stewart has never been a one-trick pony. A winner in every form of racing he's tackled, with titles in the USAC, IRL and NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ranks, he is also a champion sprint car owner and landlord of Ohio's Eldora Speedway.

While his off-track exploits haven't garnered the same juicy headlines, Stewart has also long been a success raising money for those on less fortunate paths. He has given more than $1 million to Kyle and Pattie Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp, sponsored fundraisers at his favorite Indiana Dairy Queen and raised thousands more through charity events he's held at bowling lanes and on ski slopes.

A Midwesterner by birth, the talented and tenacious Stewart flummoxed his elders when he switched to the NASCAR ranks in the late 90s with a mouth that roared as loud as his chassis. With a man like four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt as a mentor, it's not surprising Stewart's bold antics set tongues wagging.

Those who have spent considerable time around Foyt, however, know his famed crankiness is offset by a heart as big as his native Texas.

Stewart, like the tracks on which he competes, has never been an easy read. He can be ornery and ticklish and smooth as silk, consumed by the need to succeed. As he lay there Saturday awash in waves of goodwill, Stewart said his final wish was that the sun never set on the day his dream finally was achieved.

But when he woke up Sunday, Stewart remained a winner and champion. One free to dream a new dream.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005, Tony Stewart

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